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What makes a good horror movie: is it just the gore and violence?

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If someone is asked the question, “What does a happy ending look like in a film?”, most would more than likely imagine bright colors, happy faces, and maybe even the usual cliché kiss. In the horror genre, when there is a happy ending, it would always appear somewhat bloody, gory, and a few (or many) corpses riddled about. Horror films take the viewer through a rollercoaster of emotions, taking them from a world of safety to one of insecurity, and leave lasting effects.

One of the most unique features within the horror genre is that there is a variety emotions experienced throughout the film. These include the main ones being sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and even happiness. Fear, anger, and sadness are the main emotions that basically creates a horror film. Happiness, or a sense of justice, is usually found towards the end of the film, which is usually foreseeable unless the ever-so-famous plot twist occurs. Happiness, oddly enough can be experienced enough after the film, but during can only be experienced towards the end when the main character(s) survive. According to Dr. Glenn Walters, a forensic psychologist, states that the viewer, whether knowingly or not, goes through a process called catharsis, which purges (or purifies) oneself of negative emotions, leaving most viewers with a sense of satisfaction from watching a horror film, regardless of how it ended (5). Happiness is expressed in a variety of ways in the genre. To some, it’s through a good laugh. To others, it’s through a self-induced fright. Disgust was a great factor back in the 1990’s and later dwindled to a few films in the early 2010’s, but isn’t in much use these days as character deaths are now portrayed more through shock value rather than one that can make the viewer squirm. For example, Saw (2004 – 2010, 2017), The Human Centipede (2009, 2011, 2015), and Cabin Fever (2002, 2008, 2014, 2016) are just a few splatter films that are highly praised in the horror community due to their massive amounts of gore and disturbing visuals. However, gore, violence, or any other grotesque scenarios are no laughing matter in real life.

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In the average horror film scenes are viewed more realistically compared to other, expensive genres such as action and thrillers. The special effects are usually due to lighting, fake blood, costume designing, and very little to no CGI (Computer Generated Imagery). Because of the lack of computer graphics and more physical effects (fake blood, make-up, and basic outdoor/indoor scenery) the film would give off a more realistic feel. The closer a film is to imitating a murder without killing the actor/actress, horror fans will continue to come by to watch and praise the result. Yet, the moment these fans see an actual killing, there is a huge uproar. Obviously, it’s wrong to murder, rape, and steal, but wouldn’t exposure to these films dilute their reactions to real gore? Dr. Walters also referenced a study that was conducted by Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley, and Paul Rozin, all experts in the field of psychology, to see if there was difference in reactions between real-life gore (from a documentary) and fictional gore from those who enjoy watching horror films. 90% of the college-level students that participated in the study felt disgusted and couldn’t continue watching the videos of slaughtered cows, a monkey’s brain being served as a dessert after it’s skull was opened, and a child’s face being “turned inside out” for a surgery (12). Although cows are slaughtered for consumption, surgery is now somewhat normal, and monkey brains are as much as a delicacy as cow brains, these same students would continue watching a film that showed more gruesome, violent, and disturbing deaths. Based on the study, McCauley came up with the answer that the viewers have some form of “control by placing psychological distance between them and the violent [film] they have witnessed” (13). As the viewer experiences the different emotions during the film, they know that what they are witnessing isn’t real based on the music, sound, and the “monsters”. Sitting can be a contributing factor as well, but most are enthralled by the film rather than their physical well-being.

Fear begins may begin in the mind, but it also spreads throughout the individual’s body, giving them a limited, yet extreme, amount of sensations. To put how fear is brought up, it originates in the limbic system of the brain, specifically the amygdala, which is almond-shaped and processes other emotion-related stimuli (The Human Memory 1). This will then begin a series of sensations that would be the same as if they were in a fight-or-flight situation. They’ve established the fact that there isn’t any threat around, yet the sensations are still there and even with the sugary snacks and drinks being consumed, the body continues to give an extra burst of energy by releasing adrenaline. Because the viewer has no control on how to feel at this point and knows that they aren’t in any danger, it gives them a form of lucid dreaming, which is where a sleeping person is able to acknowledge the fact that they’re dreaming. To feel fear, know that there isn’t a physical threat, and have physical control on the situation can only give someone a sense of thrill. According to a study conducted by Dr. Tom Robinson, Dr. Clark Callahan, and student Keith Evans, all either with master’s degrees in mass communications or studying for one, there were three types of horror viewers: The adrenaline junkies are the ones who sit through a horror film to feel the surge of adrenaline coursing through their bodies; The white knucklers sit through a film to feel fear and vulnerability rather than the adrenaline itself; then the detectives are the individuals who want a challenge when trying to figure out the story before it is revealed or of how the film will end (Robinson, et al 49). Due to their distinct reasons, the viewers can’t hate film unless it fails to meet their expectations like any other film.

For a film in this genre to be successful, there needs to be somewhat of a connection between the film and the viewer. People don’t enjoy being alone and tend to find comfort in others that are like them, objects, activities, or anything that they enjoy. They want someone or something to connect with. For instance, The Final (2010) is of a film that focuses on the lives of five teens who have been mistreated by fellow students throughout high school. These same students later invite these people to a party and later use a combination of what they’ve learned in school and in their personal lives to torture these same bullies before ending their own lives. This film connects with those who have or are being bullied. Obviously, the film isn’t saying to torture their bullies and commit suicide. The film is rather showing how they feel: worthless. But it also allows the viewer to see another way. These same students in the film used their talents to get back at their bullies with such precision that it shows the viewer that they can do what they want if they can put the effort into it. The film also reassures them of this when towards the end, the last line of the students was, “There are more of us”. The line is later stuck in any viewer’s mind, realizing they’ve witnessed the absolute ability a person has on another. Horror films don’t only instill fear through the viewer with just terrifying creatures and killers, but with the realization that there is a connection between the film and their own reality. Actions and decision-making skills can be either similar or dead-on, leading them to think they would have no chance in surviving an apocalypse, a serial killer attack, or even a deadly virus outbreak.

Unlike happiness, fear, sadness, and anger can last far longer in the mind. In real life, seeing a car crash, death, or explosion, can trigger these emotions instantly, lasting either a few days or maybe even months. In films, however, the viewer is given much more detail of the characters, parts of the story, and sometimes a lack of information gives the viewer an instant feeling of acceptance among them. Which is why when the film ends, reality feels odd. The mind is still set in the film with the gore and screams. In a way, it feels as though a wave of sadness has decided to replace the fear that was originally there. To some, these are considered as negative effects.

“Each time we feel fear, we further reinforce the impression of fear in the subconscious mind, so by repeatedly being exposed to situations that make us feel afraid, we start feeling more fear in our day to day lives as well. As a result of increased fear the person can become more susceptible to depression, more closed to people, develop an inferiority complex and even develop more serious disorders like paranoia” (SPR 1).

There are individuals who despise these films because they are indeed terrifying and can only cause more harm than excitement. Back to the study conducted by Haidt, McCauley, and Rozin the average college students were more disgusted by real life scenarios that are of the norm than the more gruesome and terrifying horror films. These same individuals know the difference between reality and fiction, no matter how they feel during the viewing. The aftermath of watching a film varies on how the individual feels and how long it would take for them to resume normal feel. For the average viewer, it shouldn’t take long for them to feel normal, since it was just a feeling of fight-or-flight with no danger. Once that passes, the body regains its normal operations and the mind feels nothing but satisfaction from watching a well-made film.

In conclusion, horror films have an intense impact on the mind’s emotions and bodily functions. These films create several emotions such as sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and even happiness. Not only that, but as well as the body as it begins to go through an hour, or two, of being in fight-or-flight mode while just sitting. Which allows the viewer to feel as if they were in the film while knowing that they are safe. And when the film ends, and was to their satisfaction, they can feel satisfied by feeling the aftermath of the emotions slowly ebb away. These films have no harm towards the human mind. The only way for the individual to be harmed is through themselves.

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